Put Locke to Work

I received a brief email from a reader who took issue (I think) with my review of the Academy Award nominated “The Garden,” appearing in today’s “Post.” I framed this documentary, about the contest over a 14-acre community garden in South Central Los Angeles, in terms of John Locke’s theory of property.

“Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature has provided and left it in, he has mixed his labor with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property. It being by him removed from the common state nature has placed it in, it has by this labor something annexed to it that excludes the common right of other men.”

Mix your labor with the earth, and that patch of earth is yours. It’s an enticing theory, especially if you live in a country such as the U. S. which retains a vigorous cultural memory of the frontier. Yes, of course the frontier wasn’t empty, and there were plenty of native people mixing labor with it before the Europeans arrived with their more heavy-handed mixing. But that doesn’t mean that the idea of owning something simply through its improvement and its upkeep doesn’t have powerful resonance. And it’s that power that makes the gardeners in “The Garden,” mostly poor Hispanic residents, sympathetic figures despite the deeply complex question of who actually owns the land they’re tilling.

My email interlocutor asked what seemed at first like a non sequitur: What do you have to say about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? In general, I find it best not to introduce flash-point issues such as Middle East conflict into reviews of community gardening movies. But the writer has a point. And it’s an all the more salient point given that I reviewed “Lemon Tree”—a drama based on a real life story about a Palestinian woman who loses her family’s lemon grove when the Israeli minister of defense moves in next door–a week earlier. If I was going to bring up Locke, perhaps that was the time.

Locke’s theory of property was probably never meant to leave the rarefied confines of the State of the Nature, that all-purpose intellectual breeding ground located somewhere between the North Pole and the Land of the Purple Ponies. But it remains an emotional idea, a feeling about ownership and rights more than an argument. It is curious how powerful the feeling is, especially given what I wrote about Peter Brown’s lecture a few days ago. Paradise is pre-work, pre-tilling, pre-mixing your labor with the land. Locke’s ideal shows how far we’ve come since the Loss of Eden. Both movies dip into paradise imagery: the Lemon Grove and the South Central Garden are clearly meant to be Edenic patches in a hostile, ugly world. But their ownership, their connection to the people who have made them into a little bit of paradise, is all through that very post-lapsarian idea of work.

That said, I’m still not likely to gratuitously raise the Israel-Palestine conflict in any movie review that isn’t explicitly about the Israel-Palestine conflict. There’s no margin in it.

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1 Comment

Filed under Culture, Feuilleton, film

One response to “Put Locke to Work

  1. I’m not sure how to read this. Either you think that relating the issue of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to the fascinating issues raised in your review is enough — a signpost that points the way towards deeper thought — or else you are ducking the question. What I liked about the review was how nuanced it was in raising and touching the many complex issues involved. I’d love to read a similarly gentle perspective on the issues of ownership, labor, utility and possession regarding the tapestry that was once the Palestinian Mandate, is now Israel, and may one day house Palestine.

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